BERLIN, November 25th (IPS) – Nikolaos Gavalakis is the editor of the IPG journal International Politics and Society. Before that he was head of the regional office ‘Dialogue Eastern Europe’ of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Kiev.
Trumpism isn’t just disappearing after the US elections. And we finally need to understand why Donald Trump has to leave the White House in January. Although there will be some skirmishes in the U.S. courts in the coming weeks to find out whether or not some votes were legitimate, the outcome won’t change.
No sooner had the major US broadcaster declared Joe Biden the winner than some experts began to write the epitaph of all of populist law. The sociologist Ivan Krastev spoke of a “devastating blow for the European populists”. And the former EU Council President Donald Tusk was delighted that “Trump’s defeat can mark the beginning of the end of the triumph of right-wing populism in Europe too”.
But not so fast. First, a look at the political map reveals some sobering facts. In France, Marine Le Pen is already at the start of the 2022 presidential election. In Great Britain, Boris Johnson’s chaotic government is still aiming for a no-deal Brexit.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s nationalist Lega Nord is at the top of the polls. In Poland, the ruling PiS (with the support of the Constitutional Court) recently restricted women’s right to abortion. And Viktor Orbán continues to wreak havoc unhindered in Hungary.
It doesn’t look much better outside of Europe either. Despite his disastrous management of the corona crisis and over 150,000 deaths, Jair Bolsonaro is more popular than ever in Brazil, according to September polls.
It cannot be denied that right-wing populists have achieved unprecedented success and made it to the highest offices over the past decade. This phenomenon likely peaked in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as the most powerful man in the world. Four years later, Trump was defeated. But what lessons can be learned from the elections to fight right-wing populism?
Trumpism is here to stay
After an initial shock as the vote count advanced, the following narrative crystallized from among many in the media and center-left spectrum. Never before has a candidate won as many votes in the US presidential election as Joe Biden.
His nationwide lead over Donald Trump is more than six million votes. The leadership in the electoral college is not tight either. The tyrant is defeated. So everything is fine, right?
No; There are downsides too. Donald Trump received more than ten million votes in this election than four years ago. How close the elections were in the decisive swing states can be seen from the following information: According to the most recent census, the proportion of votes that went to the candidate of the Libertarian Party, Jo Jorgensen, was greater than in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Biden’s lead over Trump. If a few thousand of those votes had gone to Trump, he could have been in charge for another four years.
While the pain and fear caused by Trump’s relatively strong performance is perfectly understandable, an explanation based solely on racist structures does not seem complex enough.
The sobering and, for many, shocking observation remains that despite a pandemic with well over 200,000 deaths due to the Trump administration’s mismanagement, its well-documented lies and chaotic administration, its cruel migration policies, and its destructive behavior following the death of George Floyd, voters have votes Trump has not turned away from the Republicans in droves after four years.
On the contrary, it was able to attract millions of people who voted or did not vote for another candidate in 2016.
It’s not just racism
How could that happen? MSNBC presenter Joy Reid attributed the election results to “a lot of racism and anti-blackness”. Charles M. Blow took the same line in his article and cited the “strength of white patriarchy” as the reason for the result.
However, the idea of the backward white Trump voter is incorrect, as a look at the structure of the electorate shows. The president managed to widen the Republican electorate considerably.
Since 1960, no Republican presidential candidate has won a higher percentage of non-white voters (one in four voted for him). For Afro-American men, it was almost one in five, and for African-American women, Trump doubled his share of the vote from four to eight percent.
It was gaining ground among Latino voters and white women, more than a third of Asian Americans put their cross next to Trump’s name, and he was also much more successful in the LGBTQ community (28 percent) than four years ago (14 percent). . Even people of color are not immune to the appeal of right-wing populism.
While the pain and fear caused by Trump’s relatively strong performance is perfectly understandable, an explanation based solely on racist structures does not seem complex enough. After all, it’s only been eight years since Barack Obama won a landslide victory over Mitt Romney.
The idea that nearly 74 million Americans are supposed to be racist, or at least willing to swear an undeniable blind allegiance to a thoroughly racist system, is definitely a very bold argument. There are four aspects that offer a better explanation.
Social democracy is popular with Americans
First, it is often assumed that members of minorities with personal experience of discrimination automatically vote for left-wing parties. However, the reasons for individual voting decisions are much more complex.
Latinos often have very conservative views on issues such as the right to abortion. Demographic groups cannot be viewed as monolithic. “Regardless of what many progressives seem to think, minorities not only sit in their otherness all day,” writes Antonio García Martínez.
Voters are individuals with different views and attitudes, not just representatives of the demographic to which they are attributed. And they make decisions based on the available policy choices and their personal preferences.
The criticism of identity politics is explicitly not directed towards attempts to improve the situation of disadvantaged people, but towards a worldview that views social developments and conflicts primarily through the lens of group identity.
Comprehensive generalizations about electoral groups are not helpful in the fight against right-wing populism. What matters is addressing people’s real, not supposed, interests.
After both Trump elections, one thing is finally clear: the purely moral demonization of right-wing populists (“If you vote for Trump, you are a racist”) does not work.
Second, there is a widespread misconception about the reasons for people’s voting choices. The term “demagogue”, which is often used for right-wing populists, implies that voters support them out of ignorance. However, this paternalistic view does not take into account that there are often rational reasons for their voting decisions. For example, in Poland, PiS has improved the living standards of millions of people with an unprecedented welfare state program.
In their short essay, Eszter Kováts and Weronika Grzebalska explained with impressive clarity the reasons why women in particular, perhaps surprisingly, support the Polish and Hungarian right-wing populists. And there are also reasonable reasons for Trump’s election: During his tenure, for example, the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low – which particularly benefited those without a high school diploma.
In the US, classic social democratic themes are popular with voters. According to polls by Fox News – not a source suspected of advancing a left-wing liberal agenda – 72 percent want a public health plan known as Medicare for All.
Democratic Party candidates for the House of Representatives who support Medicare for All performed significantly better in the election than their party counterparts who were against it. In Florida, a state that Trump won, 60 percent of citizens voted to gradually increase the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour.
Colorado voted for paid childbirth leave and family emergencies. This should come as no surprise: measures to safeguard or improve people’s living standards are widely supported.
Demonization doesn’t work
Third, it’s clear that even Trump’s incredibly poor handling of the pandemic didn’t seem to make much of a difference. In a country with barely effective social security, many citizens have more urgent existential needs than dealing with the coronavirus.
With them, Trump’s promise to avoid a deadlock and keep the economy going at all costs went into effect. Eighty-two percent of Republican voters polled named the economy as a top concern.
Here it is helpful to see the economy not as an abstract concept, but as the backbone of prosperity and job security. Robert Misik already stated in the Vienna state elections that “Social Democrats and other progressive parties will only win at this point in time if they embody the people’s need for security”.
Similar developments can also be observed in Great Britain. The reform course initiated by Keir Starmer, which turns away from the ideological identity politics pursued under Jeremy Corbyn and emphasizes security and a left-wing economic policy, is beginning to bear fruit. According to the latest polls (hopefully more precisely than in the US) Labor is five percentage points ahead of the Conservatives.
Fourth, the relationship between the social elites and the general population is striking. There are millions of people in the US who are fed up with the moral pleas of the coastal elites with their preaching political jargon. Especially in the interior of the country, people feel patronized and culturally despised by the liberals.
“Political correctness means that you are better than someone else – it corrects someone,” says Elissa Slotkin, who represents the Democrats in the House of Representatives. “People feel looked down.” The simple language of populists like Trump is closer to the reality of many people’s lives. Political correctness is a problem for 80 percent of the American population.
After both Trump elections, one thing is finally clear: the purely moral demonization of right-wing populists (“If you vote for Trump, you are a racist”) does not work. Similar approaches failed in the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister and against right-wing parties like the AfD in the federal elections in Germany in 2017. Of course, right-wing populists must be criticized.
However, if you want to win the fight against them instead of stigmatizing voters and promoting left wishful thinking in the form of identity politics, you need concrete measures that measurably improve people’s lives: decent wages, compensation systems for short-time work, unemployment and health insurance, affordable housing and so on.
With regard to social policy in particular, the parties of the center-left certainly have a large number of instruments in the policy box.
Source: International Politics and Society (IPS), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)
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